Workers evacuated from Hanford tank farm as a 'precaution'

Workers evacuated from Hanford tank farm as a 'precaution'

Credit: KING 5 News

In this file photo, workers wearing respirators exhume contaminated materials at the Hanford Site.

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by RUSS WALKER and SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @SFrameK5

KING5.com

Posted on April 4, 2014 at 11:13 AM

Updated Friday, Apr 4 at 5:25 PM

Workers at one of Hanford's nuclear waste tank farms were ordered to evacuate the area Friday morning after suspected chemical vapors were detected.

A shift manager sent an evacuation notice at 9:03 a.m. to workers in the S tank farm, where 12 single-shell tanks are located.

The company that manages Hanford's tank farms -- Washington River Protection Solutions -- issued a statement Friday afternoon confirming the evacuation. The company said no chemical vapors had been reported by workers and that the evacuation was a precaution only. In an additional statement, a WRPS executive said no workers were in the area of potential harm, but their access was restricted while an investigation ensued.

KING 5 also learned that 25 workers refused to go into the A tank farm on Friday morning because they said safety procedures promised by WRPS were not completely in place.

WRPS said work resumed by afternoon. But workers who spoke with KING 5 and who had refused to enter the A farm in the morning said they had no plan to return to work until Monday when monitoring equipment is supposed to be installed.

The workers said they considered an official stop work but remained nearby while “WRPS scrambled to get the equipment.”

“They had an entire day planned for us to work out there and we said no way, one worker said.  “We are sick of the empty promises, they say they care about our health but they obviously do not," the worker said.

WRPS insisted that work was occurring at the A farm on Friday afternoon, but did not answer KING 5’s question about whether that work involved the installation of the monitoring equipment in question.

Friday's evacuation at the T farm comes after two weeks of reports of vapor exposures at Hanford. As of Thursday, 26 workers have received medical care or evaluations after breathing in chemical vapors dating back to March 19.

Aging tanks contain both radioactive particles and the toxic chemicals used to make plutonium during the Second World War and the Cold War decades. Vapor releases are not uncommon at Hanford are the tanks are designed to vent the vapors into the atmosphere. Filters remove all radioactive particles from vented gas, but most of the chemical particles are allowed to escape.

Several longtime workers affected told KING 5 that their physical reactions are unlike anything they have ever experienced. Some of the workers reported chronic coughing and breathing problems, tremors, excessive sweating, chronic fatigue and nausea.

On Thursday, the private company that manages the tank farms -- WRPS -- ordered workers operating in the A tank farm to wear respirators. Some of Hanford's largest waste tanks are located in the A farm, including AY-102, which was found to be leaking in the fall of 2011.

WRPS on Tuesday said it had identified several possible sources for the vapor emissions and has taken action.

WRPS President Dave Olson sent an email to workers saying the company will reinstitute a Chemical Vapors Safety team and considers actions to improve hazard analysis, controls and response.

"Your safety is my primary concern as we cope with these events.  I will remain personally involved in the actions needed to improve chemical vapor safety in the tank farms," Olson wrote in the email.

The 12 tanks in the S farm were built in 1950 and 1951 and are each designed to hold 750,000 gallons of waste. The nearby SX tank farm has fifteen 1 million gallon tanks built between 1953 and 1954. There are three 1.14 million gallon double-shell tanks in the nearby SY farm; they were built between 1974 and 1976.

A stop work initiated on Monday by employees of a different Hanford contractor has been lifted, KING 5 learned late Friday afternoon. The stop work involved 500 employees of the Mission Support Alliance and only applied to the tank farms at Hanford, not other parts of the 586-square-mile reservation.

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